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No more New Orleans vaccine mandate: Businesses are relieved amid decision to lift COVID rules

d.b.a. removes vaccine mandate sign
Halle Parker
General manager Lara Desmond removes d.b.a.'s sign asking patrons to show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test at the door after Mayor Latoya Cantrell lifted the city's vaccine mandate on Monday, March 21, 2022.

Owners of restaurants, bars, gyms and movie theaters across New Orleans breathed a collective sigh of relief Monday after the Mayor LaToya Cantrell administration lifted its vaccine mandate.

For the first time since last August, staff weren’t expected to check for a patron’s vaccine card or a negative COVID test at the door. Even businesses who required vaccine cards before the city’s mandate welcomed the change.

On Frenchman Street, d.b.a. general manager Lara Desmond removed the music venue’s signage ahead of opening Monday evening. The venue was among the first in the city prior to the mandate to start checking for vaccination or testing status, looking to protect the health of their staff and artists.

“We saw the need after seeing way too many of our culture bearers losing their lives,” Desmond said. “We’re glad that the numbers have gotten to a point where this is a feasible option.”

As of noon Monday, state health officials reported 248 new cases, 129 hospitalizations and 20 deaths, a significant decrease since the omicron surge a few months ago, when tens of thousands of residents were testing positive for the virus and hospitalizations were around 2,000 daily statewide.

Officials hinted at the removal of the vaccine mandate just before Fat Tuesday, as well as the mask mandate, which they lifted swiftly after New Orleans’ busiest day.

Spencer Thurling, owner of the Lakeview gym Snap Fitness, couldn’t wait to tear his own sign from the window, ripping it off “with a vengeance” that morning. He had just purchased the gym in early 2021 before he was hit with new COVID-19 requirements, like the vaccine mandate, and other challenges, like Hurricane Ida.

“It was one blow to the next for our business,” he said, adding that he felt like some businesses were unfairly targeted by the city’s restrictions.

But by Monday evening he had sold four new memberships and hoped people would feel comfortable coming in for a workout.

“I think people are ready to move on. They’re ready to live happy, healthy, more fit lives, and now they feel they can enjoy the gym the way they want to,” he said.

Lifting the vaccine mandate comes as COVID-19 cases drop statewide despite the festivities of Mardi Gras season, which returned this year after parades and events were canceled during Mardi Gras 2021. So far, health officials have not reported a surge post-Carnival, emphasizing that the work done to promote safety has worked, said New Orleans & Company spokesperson Kelly Schulz.

“Having Mardi Gras this year was hugely significant for us from a cultural standpoint, from an economic standpoint, and also showing that we’re able to host these big events and do so safely,” she said. “Hopefully it’ll mean good things for visitors continuing to come in, and the safety of all our locals and those who work in the hospitality industry.”

The Cantrell administration said it will continue to let the data guide its decisions, so should cases begin to rise again, there’s a chance the vaccine mandate will return.

While d.b.a. will let patrons venture freely today, Desmond noted they will also be watching cases and assess whether they need to reestablish the requirement in the future.

“Absolutely we will not hesitate to add it back if we see the numbers rising,” she said.

Halle Parker reports on the environment for WWNO's Coastal Desk.

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